Professor Spotlight: Larry Smith 

Professor Spotlight: Larry Smith 

When I decided to reach out for an interview with Professor Larry Smith, I was expecting to hear about all his accomplishments and work done over his long time as a professor and a researcher, but I was given much more than that. Make no mistake, Larry Smith is extremely well known in the UW community, and has many accomplishments under his belt. He has been a faculty member for 41 years, is co-founder and senior researcher at the problem lab, the recipient of the distinguished teacher award, and has taught over 10% of Waterloo’s alumni as of 2022 (Yup, that’s well over 30 000 students!). He is also an accomplished author and speaker, written multiple books, and is well known for his Ted Talk “Why you will fail to have a great career”, amassing over 7 million views since 2011. 


“Why you will fail to have a great career” 

 One of the most important things Professor Smith highlighted in my interview with him was his advice for students, and anyone in the job market. He made clear boundaries, on what work counts as to him. To professor Smith, there is a big difference between work and toil. “The distinction between work and toil. Work is productive activity that you enjoy, toil is what you solely for money. You should maximize work and minimize toil, if possible.” 


“If you have no personal discipline, you’re going to get nothing done in life” 

Smith also spoke a lot about how personal discipline is so important these days. In a world where we can often just go through our day not doing anything special or meaningful, personal discipline and motivation is everything. This matters to students, people in their jobs today, and even to those who are getting into later years and perhaps plan on retiring. Smith highlighted the importance of enjoying your work throughout the interview. 


The Distinguished Teacher Award   

In 1993, Larry Smith was the recipient of the distinguished teacher award. The Distinguished teacher award is Waterloo’s most prestigious teaching accolade and is awarded each year by the University Senate “in recognition of a continued record of excellence in teaching at the University of Waterloo.” The recipients are chosen by a committee of students, faculty, staff and alumni based on nominations from the university community.   

At the time, Smith had been an adjunct professor since 1981, or 12 years. Students provided their honest opinions on his teaching abilities, all while carrying a very heavy teaching load, and having large classes as high as 200 students, where it is particularly hard to gain these kinds of touching interactions. 


 Some words from former students  

“He is a phenomenal teacher,” “he is enthusiastic, he motivates, and he maintains interest,” “there is a mix of outrage, fun, and intellectual provocation in his explanations,” “students not even enrolled in his course will fill the back row,” “he makes economics pertinent to everyday life,” “there is a remarkable degree of involvement by students in class - a triumph in classes of 100-200 students.” 


Throughout our talk, Smith was very humble with all that he said, and when I asked about the award, more than anything he wanted people to know how important it was to him, and that he appreciated the impact he was able to leave on his students: “I am honored by that, for me it was very special.” 


Plans for the future  

As for plans in the future, Professor Smith plans to mostly continue with what he is doing and continuing to improve: “As for my future career, so long as I’m able to do it, more the same. I don’t see why that’s complicated; I like doing research, I’m asked to do it, it allows me to support a fair number of students, I’m having fun.” 

Smith does have his downtime like other people but doesn’t plan on retiring on a beach somewhere. He has found what he loves to do and is able to balance his work, and his personal life very well. 


Most important Advice

Smith’s most important advice to students is to find something you love to do and stick with it. Skills from any backgrounds can become great careers, and at the end of the day it more comes down to if you are willing to have the discipline to be the best at what you do. 


Check out:   

TEDxUWaterloo: “Why you will fail to have a great career”


Larry Smith’s books: 

How to Have a Great Career: Find Your Passion, Achieve Your Goals and Love What You Do [2017] 

No Fears, No Excuse: What You Need to Do to Have a Great Career [2016]